Pisa is a small city whose international reputation is centred on its famous tower and central square. Or completely off centre in the case of the tower.
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I was treated to a whirlwind 2 day trip to Tuscany in May. When I diverged from a career in finance after my college degree I didn’t realise the lack of perks of working bars and later hotels. But sometimes they come around and you grab them with both hands. So on this occasion, our wine supplier Counterpoint took us to winery called Buonamico in Tuscany. With an opportunity to see Pisa and Lucca. All expenses paid. Needless to say I gleefully accepted.
The flight was at a reasonable 9:45am and we met at 7:45. For a trip populated by bar and restaurant staff, none of us were sufficiently sociable at this hour. It was too early in morning to soak up names. Introductions were made and immediately forgotten. We lost each other in the incredibly busy customs check at Dublin airport, so I ventured for a coffee and scone alone.
Meeting back up in the terminal our group consisted of Paddy, Redmond, and Declan who were Dublin based, company reps Karen and Sean, and a couple of ladies Alex and Maeve, who were from country establishments.
The flight via Ryanair was 2 hours and 30 minutes and our group were randomly seated so once more we were scattered, this time to all ends of the plane. I struck up an excellent conversation with a couple who religiously travelled to Tuscany each May and September. They imparted some advice on how to enjoy the area best, from wines to food. Arriving in Pisa the familiar Irish sight of rain greeted us. Our mini bus driver picked us at the airport, logistics well planned by our hosts.
Our first port of call was Pisa, and after a few minutes driving we were left out just beside the Piazza del Duomo. The overwhelming sight of the magnificent tower mesmerised us all and the repartee of the mini bus died, as we entrancingly shifted towards it. First impressions were surprise at just how big it was, and that they weren’t exaggerating. It really does have a very significant slant. The rain failed to dampen our enthusiasm as myself and Alex took the opportunity to take the most typical of photos, that one where you stop the tower falling. To protect my reputation (whatever that might be) I won’t share here. Our heads next turned to the square which was magnificent in all its detail. Losing ourselves in the moment we lost our group but only temporarily.
All of us were now starving so lunch beckoned at Osteria in Duomo, again pre booked. I usually like to organise everything myself, but who says no to a free lunch. It is located off the Piazza on the attractive Via santa Maria.
Lunch at Osteria in Duomo
The restaurant sold Buonomico wines (no coincidence) so the first thing to hit the table was their award-winning Sangiovese pink Spumante. The waiter proposed anti pasta for the table, something that couldn’t be refused. The mix of meatballs, bruschetta, Parma and Italian hams, Italian corned beef, anchovies, with tomato and basil concasse was sublime. The wines kept appearing at the table and we were introduced to their amazing reserva. Again the perks of working bars were finally evident as tasting wines could be deemed working. We all opted for only primi plata after the large amount of anti pasta. I choose a Maltiagili with asparagus cream and ham. Tuscan food has renown worldwide, and it was easy to see why. Their food passion was evident from the first bite.
Leaning Tower of Pisa
Perfectly set up for a few hours exploration of Pisa’s compact city, a jaunt up a tower was exactly what I needed now to release the pressure on my shirt buttons. Again the group splintered, Paddy and I the only two interested in scaling the tower. Shame on the others. Some things can’t be missed in my opinion. Visiting the ticket office which is located in the bright coloured Palazzo dell Opera I purchased tickets for the tower and the baptistery. €23 for the two, but if it helps to keep the tower open for future generations so worth it. The Angelo Caduto sculpture outside the ticket office is magnificent depicting the torso of a fallen angel. The alternate background of Italian cypress trees is as Tuscan as they come.
Tickets to the tower are sold at 15 minute intervals and no bags are allowed up, but the cloakroom is free. Our ticket was for 430, so after a short queue we made it inside. The detail on the tower is excellent perhaps something I didn’t expect. Beckoned into the central room the inner shaft of the tower extends up to nearly the top. We declined the invite to listen to info on the tower by a somewhat sharp-tongued tour guide, and instead proceeded up the tower. The pull of gravity within was truly remarkable you could feel yourself being dragged to the side with the tilt. For me this defined the tower. After 284 steps the top was reached. Pisa flattered from above looking truly magnificent with top down views of the Baptistery and Duomo. Lingering here for some time we took photos from every angle and spent time standing in solitude and awe.
The towers story is a celebrated one and needs no introduction. But I’ve already started so here goes. Taking 200 years to complete by 1372, this owed to the tilt developing during the construction phase. Built as the Duomos campanile or bell tower, the tilt increased over the centuries until a period of closing between 1990 and 2000. The angle of leaning was reduced from 5.5 degrees to 3.99 degrees. The top still lies 3.9 metres from the centre. Hooray for medieval architecture and modern structural engineering in allowing us to visit this wonder. Incredibly interesting is the latest info to come from experts that the same soil which caused the tilt on the tower is also responsible for helping it survive 4 major earthquakes which struck the Tuscany area over the centuries.
Baptistery & Duomo
I went to visit the Baptistery alone. It’s a beautiful marble structure from outside blending Romanesque and gothic designs. It’s designer was Diotisalvi who may also have designed the tower of Pisa. His Baptistery is the largest in Italy. It’s portal faces the Duomo and there is final detail observed all the way up to the dome. The interior lacks decoration except in the font and the pulpit, but its usage is clear from the name and requires little decoration. Be sure though to climb the stairs to the upper level. There is a good advantage on the floor below, but find the window that looks in the direction of the Duomo. A small cut in the mesh allows for a perfect photographic position.
The Duomo has free entry and the interior outshines that of the Baptistery. On the exterior it was designed in the Pisan Romanesque style, again from marvellous marble and stone. It’s a wonderful facade of pillars and designs. It was consecrated in 1118. Entering through bronze doors, the cathedral is split into a central nave and two side aisles. Long columns run throughout the church. The aisles’ walls are covered in impressive art. The central nave is crowned by a gold leaf coffered ceiling and the arches below reminded me of the Mezquita in Cordoba. Apparently the cathedral was funded by defeating the muslims in Sicily, so influences obviously permeated from there. The ornately decorated pulpit is the masterpiece of the church, the first of its kind in the 13th century and still beautiful to behold. The altar and the cupula of the dome above are also a fitting centerpiece for the church. Before them hangs Galileo’s lamp, a tribute to where he developed one of his theories. I found the Duomo to be the most attractive of the Pisa buildings. The irony that it is also the one that is free.
I would have liked the time to see Piazza dei Cavalieri and the church of Santa Maria Della Spina but our time was short and our obligation to the wine company was upon us. Our chauffeur took us the forty minute ride to Buonamico which was located east of Lucca. The complex is newly purpose-built, at first it looked a little out-of-place amongst the traditional houses of the surrounding countryside. Later we discovered that the modern structure was designed to resemble a vine leaf.
The large restaurant sits atop the 11 luxurious rooms of the complex. Only open one week, the rooms are known by the names of grapes, so I found myself in Merlot. The rooms were opulent and the patio which opened up on to the vineyard was peaceful perfection. The vineyard and complex are overlooked by the small medieval town of Montecarlo and this was the backdrop of my view.
After a shower and a coffee and taking time to collect my thoughts of the day, we met back upstairs. We spoke with the barman David who give us a knowledgeable introduction to some of the wines, before the company’s rep arrived. Sylvia an attractive Italian from Florence had spent time working in Ireland before, and knew Sean and Karen from our group.
We then had to pleasure of meeting Eugenia the owner of the vineyard and mastermind behind its expansion. With a background in olive oil, which is heavily produced locally, he expanded by purchasing the ailing vineyard ten years prior. A success story so perfectly Italian.
Eugenia has this cool exterior like a megalomaniac sitting in his empire. He would make a great Bond villain. I imagined him stroking a cat like Blofeld. He had the air of a man with a vision and from what we saw, his confidence was not misplaced.
Sitting on the veranda overlooking the vineyards, the conversation was engaging, as more Spumante flowed and the entrees of cheeses, hams and bruschetta were lapped up.
What followed was an evening of good laughs, learning insults in Italian and memorable stories. Dinner was food at its best, my starter was squid with creamed leeks and main was the most delicate and amazing beef cheek I ever had. And all washed down with another table top tour through the wines of the vineyard, from their original vermentino to their best reservas. We all felt the pace of the early flight that day so the dinner party ended before the witching hours. A second full day of Tuscan exuberance awaited us.